How soccer explains America

The renewed interest in the World Cup offers an opportunity to re-examine what makes a sport American

June 21, 2014 1:00AM ET
U.S. national team players pose for a photo before a match against Ghana at the Dunas Arena in Natal on June 16.
Emmanuel Dunand / AFP / Getty Images

In a 1993 column for USA Today, Tom Weir famously wrote, “Hating soccer is more American than apple pie, driving a pickup or spending Saturday afternoons channel surfing.” In 1994 the United States hosted its first FIFA World Cup. Major League Soccer (MLS), a professional league in the U.S., kicked off its first match two years later. In the last two decades, soccer has become a significant part of many Americans’ lives. Today even Weir would not be able to defend his extreme view of the sport. Weekend after weekend, parks are filled with youth soccer players. Parents gather at high school soccer fields after work to watch their children play. Community-based adult soccer leagues continue to grow and prosper across the nation.

However, compared with American football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey, soccer is still perceived as the “other” sport. This perception is slowly changing, however, especially in large cities and among young professionals. The answer to why soccer struggled to become a mainstream American sport may be found by examining who plays the game. It reveals our common misconceptions about the definition of “American.” What do we mean when we say a sport is American? This is not a linguistic question but an inquiry into American identity.

First, female participation in U.S. soccer eclipses male presence in the sport. It is one of the few major sports in which the women’s national team has been more successful internationally than the men’s squad. Few countries can compete with American girls’ and women’s soccer teams from as young as 6 years old. The U.S. has some of the finest female coaches, referees and even soccer moms.

It is unfortunate that women’s sports do not sell well in the United States. Many women’s professional leagues disappear within a few years. Even a relatively successful enterprise such as the Women’s National Basketball Association lags behind its male counterpart. The U.S. Women’s National Team, ranked first in the world, has won two World Cups and four Olympic gold medals. However, its glory pales in comparison to the hype that surrounds the men’s team, even though its best results at the World Cup have been a bronze medal 84 years ago and a quarterfinal spot in 2002. Does a sport have to be dominated by men to be considered mainstream American?

Community soccer leagues

Second, soccer is seen as a youth sport in the U.S. From the recreational American Youth Soccer Organization to an under-18 competitive travel league, the sport is popular among boys and girls. But many youths grow out of it and go on to participate in other sports. Few college students realize when their teams have home games, let alone how well or poorly the team is doing during the season. Adults tend to consider soccer as a sport that their children play but not the sport of their choice.

While Spanish speakers make up only about 13 percent of the U.S. population, in 2010 a third of the World Cup final audience watched the tournament on the Spanish language network Univision.

This is not to say that adults do not play soccer. From Los Angeles to Boston, Chicago to Miami, organized adult leagues play on weekends, sometimes even on weeknights. Given the de facto residential segregation in the U.S., many neighborhoods have racial and ethnic characteristics. In communities with a large recent immigrant population, this trend is even stronger. For example, in the Detroit area, there are several teams named after their communities — the Albanian team, the Chaldean team, the Polish team and so on. On a Sunday afternoons, soccer fields become a place of socialization, where players and their family members converse in native languages and share homemade cuisine and news from back home. However, the U.S. is still not ready to recognize ethnic and racial minority cultures as a part of its culture.

Latinos dominate most of the community-based soccer leagues. Many of the prospective soccer players in Latino communities, including their American-born children, are culturally more exposed to the game. While Spanish speakers make up only about 13 percent of the U.S. population, in 2010 a third of the World Cup final audience watched the tournament on the Spanish language network Univision. There are only three Latino players on Team USA’s roster in Brazil, but coach Jürgen Klinsmann has recruited several young promising Latino players in the past few years. At the MLS level, almost a quarter of the players are Latino. 

U.S. soccer can also be divided into two groups based on class. On the one hand are soccer moms and dads, middle- and upper-middle-class parents who have the financial means to spend thousands of dollars each year on club soccer for their children. From a $120 pair of cleats to tournament weekends spent at hotels, being able to afford the expenses reflects the family’s class status, as with their suburban houses. On the other hand there are urban soccer players —young and old — who play the game wearing cheap T-shirts on fields that barely have painted lines. In 2012, Klinsmann told ESPN that even internationally, soccer is a lower-class sport and there is an untapped talent among urban youths in the U.S. Since most of these youths cannot afford to play on an expensive travel team, in essence, our definition of American sport excludes the experience of the lower class.

The soccer’s iconic quadrennial event is underway in Brazil, and the hype for the tournament is on the rise in the States. How well will the U.S. perform in its “group of death” against Germany, Portugal and Ghana? There is much hope and excitement. But it is also an opportunity to reconsider what “American” stands for. How much do ideas of what it means to be American — whether in sports or more broadly — genuinely reflect the realities of gender, age, race and ethnicity in the U.S.?

The U.S. national team has seven players with dual citizenship. As we rejoice in the victory of Klinsmann’s squad over Ghana, this is a good place to start thinking about the definition of American identity. Are we inclusive of what women, youths, immigrants, Latinos or economically disadvantaged people living in this country cherish? Whether the U.S. embraces soccer as its own is yet to be determined. But the answer to the question will reflect if our definition of “American sport” lives up to the ideals of pluralism and inclusion. 

Yuya Kiuchi is an assistant professor in the department of human development and family studies at Michigan State University.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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